I recently read an article during SXSW about Twitter. Twitter was largely born at SXSW several years ago, and the article revisited Twitter’s effect on SXSW this year. It discussed how hearing about all the fun things that other people were doing made people feel left out and generally lousy — especially those sitting home on their couch instead of hitting the next “hot” party.
Got me thinking… Facebook and Twitter are very in the moment services, right? So how do they fit with being mindful? Isn’t mindfulness meditation all about being in the moment?
As I see it there are two parts here… the “in the moment” issue, and the response to the moment, just as there is during a meditation. During a meditation you sit (stand, walk, do yoga asanas…) and observe what is happening within. You might notice uncomfortable sensations, maybe you notice thoughts pass in and out of your awareness, maybe you notice powerful emotions arise. You practice being in the moment by staying focused on your anchor (your breath, a sound, a sensation, etc.) and as you get distracted (by thoughts, feelings, emotions..) returning back to your anchor.
Of course, there’s a response to this process. You might get annoyed that you keep getting distracted. You might have a thought that is unsettling. You might wish that the timer was going off and get annoyed that it isn’t yet. You might be bored, frustrated, anxious or irritated that you are doing the meditation at all. These responses to the stimuli of the meditation are informative and common.
But back to social media.
Twitter and Facebook allow us to get updates as to what others are doing, thinking and feeling in real time as they happen. You get to experience your friends’ lives on a moment-by-moment basis. Is social media really living in the moment? Well, it’s living in someone else’s moment. There are opportunities, however, to be in your moment.
Just as during meditation, Twitter and Facebook might spark feelings of craving or aversion. Maybe you just read that your friend is getting ready to go out to dinner at a swanky new restaurant and feel that “want” come on for what they have that you don’t. Maybe someone posted about a movie they liked and you find yourself responding very negatively, having thoughts about how stupid that movie must have been and how silly they are for going to it. Maybe you instantly responded to a friend’s posting in response to an emotion of irritation, frustration or annoyance and later regretted the post.
During meditation we work to accept the moment. Instead of attaching to thoughts and emotions or forcing them away, we work to just observe and listen. As a thought drifts in, we practice noticing that it is a thought, just a thought. In other words, it is our interpretation of reality but is not necessarily reality itself. Thinking “she’s so ridiculous” does not make the person ridiculous, nor does it mean that tomorrow you’d feel the same way. That thought is, instead, a momentary reaction to our interpretation of some stimuli.
You have options as to what to do with the thought. You can attach to it. You might feel annoyed or irritated. You might respond by avoiding the person, or talking badly about her to someone else. You might get distracted from work because you keep thinking about how ridiculous she is. Or, you can observe the thought. You can notice it come into your awareness. You might notice the feelings it evokes in you. You might watch your urge to call or gossip or respond. But, in the end, you might let the thought go and instead of acting on the thought, notice the next thought arise.
In that way, social media can be a small practice in mindfulness. You might notice your reaction to status updates and tweets. Watching the emotions they evoke, the thoughts that arise. You might even notice urges you have to act or respond. You might do all of this and then choose not to act. Or, you might watch all of this, experience all these feelings, and decide to act mindfully. Whatever your decision, these moment by moment engagements can give you an opportunity to be mindful of your experience and to make wise decisions about how you act and react.